Friday, November 28, 2008

Rivkah, Mumbai, and Us: Why me? (Derashah Toldot 5769)

Even in India;
Even in the middle of what is fundamentally a war between Muslim and Hindu;
Even when the terrorists, Deccan Mujahideen or Indian Mujahideen, make demands not about Palestine and imprisoned Hamas terrorists but about Kashmir and about Muslim prisoners in Indian jails;
the death toll still includes Jews, in a Jewish center, targeted months in advance because they are Jews.

Rivka’s anguished cry, from the beginning of this week’s parshah, is echoed in our mouths, generations later: אם כן, למה זה אנכי? If this is the way it is to be, Gd, then why me?

Rivkah, plucked from her home in Aram, is childless with her husband Yitzchak for twenty years. She pleads with Gd for a child; ויעתר is the verb the Torah uses for her prayer, a term which literally means, “she turned with a pitchfork.” She twisted and turned in her angst. And then Gd responded and she conceived - but she felt great pain in the pregnancy.

The pain drove Rivkah not to a medical healer, but to Gd, because she took her infertility and then her difficult pregnancy as a definitive sign from Gd: You are not worthy. She cried out, אם כן למה זה אנכי, "Then why did You pick me?! I’m not like Avraham and Sarah, who came to you themselves. I’m not like Yitzchak, who was born into this. Maybe I’m not worthy, because I’m not great. Maybe it’s because of my parents, my brother Lavan, who are not worthy. But You Picked Me, Gd - so why are You putting me through this?"

And this has been the cry of Jews since time immemorial. Under the lash and boot of Egyptians and Assyrians and Babylonians, crushed by Greek and Persian and Roman and Byzantine, murdered by Christian and Muslim and atheist, the Jew has cried out, למה זה אנכי, Why me? בכל דוד עומדים עלינו לכלותנו, in every generation they rise up against us, to kill us. Why me?

And there is an answer as well, a Divine response which lacks the sheer force of Rivkah’s protest, but which nonetheless speaks to her and to us with a Divine logic borne out by the evidence of our history, generation by generation.

Gd tells Rivkah, שני גויים בבטנך, there are two nations in your womb. Two nations are going to emerge and separate, and one is going to be greater than the other, and the elder will serve the younger. This is going to be a problem, to say the least - how will the right one survive? How will the right one receive the blessings he is supposed to be receive?

You, Rivkah, were picked with a definite plan in mind. You learned how to deal with cunning when you grew up with Lavan, you displayed your great heart when you helped Eliezer at the well, and you demonstrated your strength when you overrode your family and agreed to come to Canaan with Eliezer. You, Rivkah, have the ability to deal with these two children, you have the heart to embrace an Esav, the strength to promote Yaakov over him, and the cunning to make it happen.

Why you? Because you are uniquely suited to the task.

This is the answer for the Jew across the generations, as well. It is you because you have the stubborn courage to refuse to die or assimilate. More, it is you because you have the wits and guts to flourish despite every attempt to subdue you.

The “lachrymose theory of Jewish history,” as Salo Baron labelled it, fails to do justice to the story of our generations. Yes, there were Romans who destroyed the Beis haMikdash, but there were also Yavneh and Tzippori as well as exiled communities which survived and thrived. Yes, there were Crusades, but there were also Jewish communities in France and Germany and points east and south which survived and thrived. Yes, there were Inquisition and Expulsion, but there were also Jewish communities in Tzfat and Turkey and Holland and Brazil which survived and thrived. And yes, there was a Holocaust, but there were also Jewish communities in Israel and America which survived and thrived.

For every moment when we have cried out, למה זה אנכי, Why me, the answer has been, Because you can.

This is not a comforting answer; it does not explain why anyone must suffer, it does not explain the inhumanity of humanity, it does not explain why Gd watches without bringing a halt to the bloodshed - but Rivkah is not someone who seeks comfort. Rivkah helped Eliezer at the well not for the sake of riches or reward, but because she knew it to be the right thing to do. Rivkah left her family homeland without a comforting Divine promise. Rivkah calculatingly deprived her elder son of his blessing, knowing all along the pain it would bring him. Rivkah is not concerned with comfort; she only wants to know that there is a plan, that there is a למה, a reason why. It is this reason Why, that HaShem provides for Rivkah, and for us.

At the end of our Haftorah, Malachi speaks of two others who were “chosen” for special missions - Aharon and Pinchas. Both of them had reason to ask למה זה אנכי, Why Me. Aharon lost two sons. Pinchas suffered attacks and alienation for his lineage and for his actions in killing Zimri. But each of them had a unique mission, Aharon to be Moshe’s prophet and to be the prototypical Kohen, and Pinchas to lead, across generations, with fire and strength - and HaShem said of them, “Because they fulfilled My mission, בריתי היתה אתו, החיים והשלום,” “My covenant is with them - for life and for peace.”

May the victims in Mumbai, and all of us as well, come to know that covenant of life and peace as well.

1. This was the best I could do to address the topic today; I hope it will help someone deal with it. Thanks to Rabbi Yonah Gross of Phoenix for catalyzing the idea.

2. It is popular to translate Rivkah's question as, "Why do I have to suffer?" but that reads in the word "to suffer," which is not in the sentence. For more on this go here. Clearly, this version of the question better fits the Divine reply.

3. Ibn Ezra (Malachi 2:6) says that Malachi 2:5-2:7 refer to Aharon and Pinchas.

4. I love Salo Baron's view of the "lachrymose theory of Jewish history." I can't stand Jewish education which focuses on how much we have suffered; far better to talk about how much we have built, despite our enemies!


  1. This is an eloquent way to explain such difficult events.

    Thank you.

  2. Indeed, thank you for some comfort in the midst of tears and heartbreak.

  3. Shorty, ProfK-
    Thank you very much; I'm glad this was helpful.

  4. Nice exposition. Reinforces why I have never been able to sympathize with or understand Rivka.

  5. so weird. I spent my sermon answering the same questions from the verses--but that wasn't the point that I brought up. It was that rebekah's background was what made her uniquely suited to be able to distinguish the authentic from the fake.The Esau from the Jacob. I like your idea too.Brad